What’s on the nightstand of Yale’s Professors
Professor of Comparative Literature,
Co-Chair & DGS of the Film Studies Program
I’m such a follower when it comes to “free range reading.” It was Dick Brodhead– as friend not dean–who got me to pick up Austerlitz, a book recovering that secret dialogue of self and soul that remains the distinctive pleasure of novels. But “whose self and whose soul?” this novel makes you ask; for its author slips into narrator, its narrator into the book’s eponymous character, and Austerlitz into the varying subjects of his obsessive researches. I read at night under a dim lamp, losing self-consciousness as an impersonal language-consciousness emerged. Later I worried over the English translation and over my copy’s reproductions of those crucial photographs. Evidently I was entranced the way novels hope to entrance. It helped that a very close friend had been for twenty years Sebald’s colleague in Norwich England, sharing his German birth and partly paranoid ways. My friend prepared me for something obsessive and disquieting. Austerlitz haunts this reader in that way.
Karen von Kunes
Senior Lector, Slavic Languages and Literatures
This book, given to me recently by a student, is a delight to read. Written in a tradition of great European novels, Embers reads like poetry in prose. Beautiful passages dealing with male friendship, loyalty, and love ultimately collide into one whole of betrayal. It’s not a betrayal in the Kunderian sense of inquiry: Márai’s betrayal is a lonely companion that is juxtaposed to honor.
If Sándor Márai writes as well as Hermann Hesse, he is less fortunate in the sense that he has only recently been re-discovered in the discovery of masterpieces of world literature. In the 1930s, Márai rose to fame as one of the leading Hungarian novelists only to come to his own defeat against the backdrop of history—fascism and communism—of his country. Nonetheless, he remained faithful to his creative ambitions, while living in Italy, and later the United States. His nostalgia for the values and traditions of the collapsed Austro-Hungary is well embodied in Embers. The narrator, a General of Emperor’s circles, isolates himself in a castle, waiting for the day his childhood friend will show up. The meeting takes place forty-one years later, paradoxically corresponding to the number of years the author has spend outside of his native Hungary. In almost a streamless monologue, the narrator—now face-to-face to his long-lost friend—reveals the true nature of his friend’s betrayal: his adultery with the General’s wife, his envy of General’s societal status and wealth, and his temptation to kill the General in a presumed accident during a dear hunt. The frame of novel’s narrative is quite challenging: it comprises elements of discovery, gradual and intense, and the reader learns the actual facts of the story through the General’s recollections, now tinted with wisdom of a mature man. The musicality of style, passages dealing with the spiritual, loyalty and honor, contrast with the physical, General’s routine of discipline, a monotone and almost inert lifestyle. “Life becomes bearable only when one has come to terms with who one is, both in one’s own eyes and in the eyes of the world,” says the General. His search for life meaning is reminiscent of the journey of the Czech character, Dittie, in Bohumil Hrabal’s I Served the King of England, another novel which belongs to the pleiad of recently discovered writers from former Eastern Europe. It still remains at the level of rumor, but apparently Milos Forman, the director of Amadeus, has chosen Márai’s Embers for his next picture. This blend of two East European artists’ vision seems only natural.
Assistant Professor, Classics and History
I am in the midst of an ongoing project to work my way through 19th -century American literature. My most recent author was Hawthorne. While I enjoyed re-reading The Scarlet Letter , I was more taken by The Marble Faun (where pleasure-reading and research interests happily coincided). Hawthorne’s vision of 19th-century Rome is arresting. His characterization of the city’s moods, in particular, is wonderfully evocative and infinitely more illuminating than the descriptions of modern guidebooks. My current author is Twain. It is sheer delight. Has any other adult writer recaptured the essence of childhood with such sincerity, humor, and humanity? Frank McCourt comes very close in Angela’s Ashes, but Twain, I think, is in a class of his own. Next up: Henry James…